How to find a suitable PhD supervisor

Article by Dinsa Sachan

‘We’re not robots; we are people,’ says Michael Mauro, a cell biologist who defended his PhD at Yale University, US, in September 2021. ‘We bring baggage from outside life into the lab … having a PhD adviser who’s aware of that and can understand that if you need a minute, you got to take a minute, that’s really important.’ In fact, a functional relationship with an adviser is critical to a doctoral candidate’s wellbeing.

If you’re entering a pre-designed PhD programme, such as those offered by many institutes in the UK, you are likely going to work under the researcher heading the programme. But if you’re among the many PhD aspirants worldwide who are crafting their unique research projects, then you’re likely to explore a few research groups before you finalise one. In some parts of the world you may even have the opportunity to do lab rotations (work for a short whil in several different labs). Whatever your situation, it’s important to investigate whether you’d work well with a potential supervisor.

Find someone who matches your needs

Every researcher has a unique mentoring style. Some advisers like to check in with their students more regularly, while others allow them more freedom. As you start discussing your research project with interested scientists, ask them about their approach directly so you know whether it is suitable for you. However, ‘you don’t need to get all the mentorship from your [adviser],’ explains Anish Rao, a postdoctoral researcher in Spain, who often reached out to other faculty members in the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, in Pune, India, where he did his PhD in chemistry, to talk about things outside of his research. He had many philosophical questions, such as how does one choose a particular scientific discipline, that he found another professor to ask. ‘I [would] just go to his office and tell him all these questions,’ says Rao. ‘He was very smart and kind. So, he would entertain me.’ 

Choose someone who respects your boundaries

You have to be clear about your boundaries from the word go, especially if you are a caregiver or have children. Don’t be afraid to ask practical questions about work–life balance before you make a move. ‘Ask them the hard-hitting questions,’ says Mathew Anker, a lecturer in inorganic chemistry at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. ‘Am I going to be in the lab every day? Do I need to work seven days a week? See if they’ve got flexible working hours; that’s a really important one.’ Rao suggests searching for professors who care about topics such as mental health – if they do, they are likely to talk about it during classes or post about it on Twitter. 

Be flexible on the research front

You need to have a genuine proclivity toward the topic of your research project, but you may want to be a little flexible with the actual research question. Ultimately, you want to find the sweet spot where you like the topic as well as the research group. ‘You can be really interested in a subject, but if you’re not with the right person to do that research, then you’re not going to enjoy it,’ says Anker. 

Learn to spot a true ally

Sophia Hayes, a professor of chemistry and the interim vice-dean of the office of graduate studies in arts and sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, US, received a solid piece of advice from a mentor that can help you find not just a supportive PhD adviser but a lifelong cheerleader. ‘They told me to only work with people who equate your success with their own,’ she says. But how do you ascertain this during initial meetings? ‘You can kind of sense it,’ says Hayes, adding that you need to pay attention to small cues during those discussions. ‘When I speak about my students, I’m incredibly proud,’ says Hayes: ‘When some great discovery happens in my lab, I tend to focus on the student, the student’s role, and all the things that they did.’ Additionally, ask potential advisers about how the students who have recently completed their PhD are faring. ‘If it doesn’t match where you see yourself in 10 years, then that may not be the right place for you,’ she adds. 

Don’t skimp on background research

Use any opportunity you get to spend time in your shortlisted labs to talk to the other members of the lab, too. If a potential adviser claims they care about work-life balance, see if the lab members agree with that. Moreover, you want to also judge how you feel about working with the lab members. ‘Go and talk to these people and see if you’re going to get on because you’re going to spend a lot of time in close proximity for the next [few] years,’ suggests Anker.